Whether traveling together for a special occasion or just a group of friends taking a vacation together, cruise lines are great at catering to groups. In fact, there are programs that can pile on the perks when planning a cruise for a group - and they might even get you cruising for free - but you have to know how to fully take advantage of these programs. We’ll look at how groups work, and special considerations you should have when planning a cruise with family or friends.
Before We Get Started
Because of the numerous factors and opportunities associated with booking and negotiating these groups, anyone interested in such a group should work with an experienced travel agent. We’ll explain this more below - but felt this was important enough to mention here as well.
What is a cruise group?
When enough staterooms are occupied by guests purposely traveling together who share an affinity (such as being family or friends, belonging to the same church or club, etc), cruise lines may extend considerations to those in the group that guests booking individually wouldn't get.
Travel agents (sometimes called travel advisors) often combine those from the affinity group with individual, unrelated bookings they have on the same cruise in order to get additional amenities for all their guests on that sailing, even though the guests in these staterooms likely don’t know each other. For our purposes, however, we’ll talk about groups where everyone in the group booked that particular cruise in order to travel together, such as for a family reunion at sea.
This doesn’t mean that everyone in the group needs to pay together, or stay in the same types of staterooms - in fact there aren’t any significant restrictions for groups.
Most contemporary and premium cruise lines require at least sixteen lower berths to be booked in order to qualify for group benefits. The first two people in a stateroom are considered to be taking the lower berths (upper berths being a reference to bunk beds, but the actual type of bedding is inconsequential here). This means that eight staterooms of two people each would be required - but some lines may have different requirements, such as a different number of lower berths, or the exclusion of some sailings from groups.
What are the advantages of organizing group cruises?
If you plan a cruise as a group there are several different types of perks or incentives for doing so. Just like the requirements of creating a group, the perks vary by cruise line and even sailing - but the below information should be reasonably broadly applicable.
Group Amenity Points
Groups are given Group Amenity Points (GAPs). The number of GAPs depends on the particular sailing, and the organizer of the group can use GAPs in a variety of ways. Commonly they’re used to get everyone onboard credit or canapes, throw a cocktail party, or purchase other gifts like bottles of champagne.
More Favorable Rates “Group Rates”
This is perhaps one of the most understood and variable parts of group bookings, as they can work in any number of ways based on many different factors. If planning a group early, you may be able to lock in the current rates so those joining the group later, when the price of the cruise has gone up, can still take advantage of the early-booking rates. A good travel agent can sometimes work with the cruise line’s sales team to get discounted rates on a cruise - especially if the group is flexible with the departure date and can help the cruise line fill a sailing that might not be filling up as quickly as they’d hope.
Ultimately, there is no guarantee that groups will get lower rates, nor is there a set way of calculating things, but it’s absolutely a possible benefit of forming a group.
Additional Perks for Groups
The most common additional perks that cruise lines give groups are onboard credits, drink vouchers, complimentary specialty dining, prepaid gratuities, free internet, free cocktail parties and other special considerations.
If a group is large enough, it may be possible to do things that aren’t on a “standard menu” of amenities. For example, reserving public venues or activities for just the group - like an hour that a shipboard surf-simulator or rock-wall is available for the group without any other guests queuing up.
Tour Conductor Credits - Your Ticket to a Free Cruise
Wondering how you might cruise for free? The person putting together or organizing a group may be eligible to get their fare paid for by earning what cruise lines call Tour Conductor Credits (TCs). The number of rooms and berths in a group that are required in order to get TCs vary by cruise line, but often each eight double occupancy rooms will qualify for one TC. This means that there are sixteen rooms in your group, you may be able to get the fare covered for two people in your stateroom.
The category of the credit depends on the line. For some this may be the mean value of the group’s fares, for others it could be a set category. Of course if the group organizer earns two TCs for an outside stateroom, but that person wants a verandah, they can always pay cash for the difference.
Another option may be to "cash out" the TCs and spread the $ value among everyone in the group to reduce the cost of everyone's cruise, or distribute the value as OBC, instead of using it to pay for the group organizer's cruise.
How to Arrange a Group
Don’t go at it on your own. I cannot emphasize this enough. A good travel agent can be helpful under any circumstance - for a group this is an even bigger factor. There are two main reasons you should use a good travel agent when booking a cruise for a group of people.
Experience Navigating and Negotiating
When going over the potential perks of creating a group you see that while some things like Group Amenity Points and Tour Conductor credits are objective and based on cruise line policies, other things require a bit more finesse. Having a relationship with decision makers at the cruise line and generally knowing how to navigate this system really helps. Think you’re more informed and better equipped to create a group? Imagine the benefits that come from the experience and knowledge of a good travel agent - one that has worked with groups with multiple cruise lines.
You Don’t Want to Be the Point of Contact for the Group
Whether the group you’re organizing is for your family, former classmates, or even co-workers, you almost certainly don’t want to handle every inquiry or change anyone in the group has. Instead of your phone ringing when Uncle Ted wants to ask about vegan meals on the cruise, or when your friend Tanya decides she booked a verandah, but is thinking about upgrading to a suite, let your travel agent field those calls. This also means you’ll have an expert ready to answer your calls or emails.
True Story: For a decade now, we've used the same travel agent for dozens of land trips, cruises, Disney parks vacations, etc. If you want to try the same agency we trust and use, check out TouringPlans! You can also click here to get a quote!
Other Tips for Group Cruises
Make sure you know who your point-person on the ship will be. Your agent may be helpful, but if he or she is not sailing with you, they can tell you in advance who you should go to onboard for help with group requests, concerns or problems.Most lines have someone on board who specifically handles these things.
Be creative, but understand there may be limits. As mentioned, a lot of different factors go into how group cruises are handled, so some amenities or perks might not be an option - but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask. Want the onboard photography team to get a great group photo on the cruise line’s private island? Ask!
Help your agent spread the word to those outside your group. Maybe you’re arranging a trip for 20 friends and you’re excited about making the cruise more fun and affordable by organizing a group - other folks who book with the same agency will be included in the group. That doesn’t mean you’ll meet them, they won’t likely know they’re part of a group, you’ll have no idea who each other are, but they could mean you get even more Group Amenity Points and Tour Conductor credits! Your agent may be promoting this sailing (and it’s benefits) to others already, and since the more that sail the greater the benefit to the group, see if you can get others onboard as well.
Plan in advance. This is true of cruising in general (we’ve discussed the myth of the last minute cruise deal), but it can be even more of an advantage with groups since you can compound the savings and offer the widest selection of accommodations to your traveling companions. Additionally, GAPs for a cruise can decrease as the sailing gets closer, and cruise lines may cut off group booking as sailings fill.
Don’t forget about shore excursions. If you plan on taking some tours as a group, your travel agent can help by contacting tour-operators directly to see if they can work out a private group. Want to take excursions through the cruise line (there are advantages of either method)? Have your travel agent work this out with the cruise line, as depending on the excursion and the size of your group, you might be able to get a bus/boat/etc all to yourselves.
I hope this has helped you understand what groups are and armed you with the information to understand how you might be able to cruise with friends, get better deals, and maybe even cruise for free. If you have questions you can always ask in the comments or join us on the CruiseHabit Message Boards.